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Mainstream, VOL 61 No 50 December 9, 2023

Face of terror in Gaza: Hamas’ birth, evolution and a nuanced rethink | Debangana Chatterjee

Saturday 9 December 2023


Terrorism, when defined as the deliberate use of violence against civilians to make political gains, casts a broad ambit, covering the various acts of terror. The Hamas attack on Israel on October 7 fits this definition perfectly, and so does the disproportionate retaliation. Though the Hamas attack is unforgivable and beyond justification, we need to accept that it did not manifest in a vacuum. It is the latest chapter in a long history of violence, power wrangling and ostracisation.

While discussing Hamas now, with terrorism and the ongoing siege of the Gaza Strip by Israel as the backdrop, we must consider the backstory of politics and international relations. And that the growth of Hamas had a lot to do with its isolation as the ruling authority in Gaza. Isolation, which handed it unaccountable access to resources that came its way.

Hamas’ origins are not rooted in Islamic fervour alone, but also in the national politics of Palestine — underscored by the fact that the organisation itself is a conflation of Arabism and Islamism (Burton 2012). Of course, religion is forever part of the surge of nationalism and the idea of a nation in the region, and Hamas’ evolution was also not immune to it. The dwindling of the post-colonial nationalised modernisation in the Islamic world of the West Asian and North African region paved the way for Islamic resurgence in the 1970s. This resurgence reached its pinnacle with the Islamic Revolution of 1979 in Iran, which further bolstered the Islamic movement across the region, including Palestine.

Ideologically, Hamas draws from the Palestinian Muslim Brotherhood, formed in the 1940s under the aegis of Sheikh Ahmed Yassin. Incidentally, Israel which occupied Gaza after the Arab-Israeli war of June 1967, viewed Yassin’s Mujama al-Islamiya as an innocuous and charitable organisation (Ahmar 2021, Tribune). In 1964, the Palestinian Brothers’ internal factions gave birth to the Palestine National Liberation Movement (Fatah), led by Yasser Arafat.
As a counterweight to Arafat’s secular and nationalist credentials and to weaken them, Israel continued patronising Mujama al-Islamiya from where Hamas officially sprang up in December 1987. Arafat himself was scathingly against Hamas whom he considered a ‘creature of Israel’ (Hasan and Sayedahmed 2018, The Intercept). For Israel, it was an apparent choice of a lesser evil that would undermine a unified Palestinian struggle and bolster Israel’s claim over the territory (Ahmar 2021, Tribune).

The first Intifada, lasting between 1987 and 1993, was a Palestinian uprising seeking an end to Israeli occupation over the West Bank and the Gaza Strip. Primarily because the non-violent strategies of the Intifada were met with vigorous Israeli-imposed sanctions, curfews, and military might. During the uprising, the local Palestinian leadership of Fatah established a united platform of the United National Leadership of the Uprising (UNLU), trying to unify the internal factions. It was around the time that Harakat al-Muqawama al-Islamiya (Islamic Resistance Movement or Hamas) was officially founded, in 1987 to be exact. The Intifada, though was essentially non-violent and had a strong support base in the Palestinian society, eventually took violent turns. In 1988, as Hamas killed two Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) personnel and consequently, vowed to terminate Israel, Hamas fell from Israeli favour (Ahmer 2021). The fact remains that it originally was unleashed by Israel, as conceded by many former IDF personnel in the past (Higgins 2009, The World Street Journal; Hasan and Sayedahmed 2018, The Intercept). Israel spawned the organisation conveniently to counterbalance the Palestinian Authority until Hamas turned against it (Speri 2023, The Intercept).

With the issuance of Hamas’ founding statement (Islamic Charter, the first basic document outlining the goals and purposes of the movement infused with religious language), the incoherence in UNLU became explicit (Milton-Edwards 2008). Hamas aimed at establishing a religious Islamic state, while the Fatah and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) sought a political resolution in nationalistic terms. In other words, Hamas stressed qawmiyya (the intersection between Arabism and Islamism) as opposed to wataniyya (nationalism) (Kjorlien 1993: 4).

The momentum created by the first Intifada gave traction to Hamas amidst the prominent incoherence between Fatah and the PLO. Hamas grew stronger between 1987 and 1993. The power asymmetry with Israel made its will to drive the Israelis out of the West Bank and Gaza Strip through a hard-line approach, grow stronger (Nasrullah 2013).

Hamas was opposed to the 1993 Oslo Accords between the PLO and Israel, and labelled the PLO as an ‘enemy of peace’. The high hopes post-Oslo shifted the focus from Hamas, but the failure of the Oslo project resurrected its resistance. Hamas adopted the suicide bombing tactics, retaliating to the 1994 killing of 29 worshippers in Hebron. In turn, Israel intensified attacks against Hamas, while simultaneously engaged in peace talks with the PLO.

The outbreak of the Second Intifada (between 2000 and 2005) paved the way for Hamas’ ascendance. It gave them an excuse to rebuild its military wing.

Arafat’s successor, President Mahmoud Abbas, adopted a hard line against Hamas following a Western branding of it as a terrorist organisation post-9/11. Meanwhile, to legitimise its position, Hamas dramatically halted suicide bombings in 2005, joined hands with the PLO and ran the elections for the Palestinian Legislative Council. In 2006, it bagged 76 out of the 132 seats in the Legislative Council elections. Hamas’ unprepared win and the refusal from other parties to support it, led to the formation of an exclusive government.

Following this, the quartet (the USA, the EU, the UN and Russia) imposed three conditions upon them — recognition of Israel, acknowledgement of previous agreements between Israel and the PLO, and forsaking terrorism. Hamas’ refusal to accept these terms, resulted in its isolation due to rising internal discontent within the Palestinian Authority and an external embargo (Hroub 2013).

The Hamas-Fatah relationship, despite being mediated in 2007 by the Saudi King and the establishment of the Palestinian National Unity Government, was short-lived (Hroub 2013). The government lasted a mere three months. Soon after, the Israeli war on Gaza erupted, between December 2008 and January 2009, further disconnecting and isolating the Gaza Strip. Alongside the humiliation of Israeli occupation, the people in Gaza were inadvertently left with nothing but rule by Hamas. This isolation and an absence of accountability allowed Hamas to channel international humanitarian assistance for strengthening itself and maintaining international connections in the geographically locked Gaza Strip through a surreptitious network of tunnels.

In 2008, locally made Qassam rockets were launched by Hamas provoking Israel to turn it into a deadly war. The conflict continued and recurred intermittently — in 2011, 2012, 2014, 2021, and now, in 2023.

To conclude, the idea of terrorism itself, post-9/11, propagates an image of terror perpetrated by non-state entities. It associates Islam with an act of terror. This has established a specific discourse surrounding terrorism — a racialised, Islamic, and orientalist face of terror. It also signifies constructing a discourse that emphasises the identity of the perpetrator rather than the intensity of the act. Understanding terrorism, therefore, needs a break from the mainstream and a deeper engagement with its genesis.

While calling out the ‘terrorist’ activities of Hamas is important, the act of terror needs to be contextualised too. So should the retaliation, invariably by the state. In virtually all instances, the retaliation has been swift, with the scale of violence and destruction much higher than the original act of terror. Unjustifiable even. Going by the definition of terrorism, then wouldn’t the retaliation, the siege now, for instance, be one too?

(Author: (Assistant Professor (Social Sciences), National Law School of India University (NLSIU), Bengaluru)


  • Ahmar, Moonis (2021). “How and why Israel helped create Hamas?”. Tribune. 30 May. Available at: (Accessed on 2 December 2023).
  • Burton, Guy. 2012. Hamas and its Vision and Development. Third World Quarterly, 33:3. 525-540
  • Hasan, Mehdi and Dina Syedahmed (2018). “Blowback: How Israel Went from Helping Create Hamas to Bombing It”. The Intercept. 19 February. Available at: (Accessed on 2 December 2023).
  • Higgins, Andrew (2009). “How Israel Helped to Spawn Hamas”, The Wall Street Journal. 24 January. Available at: (Accessed on 2 December 2023).
  • Hroub, Khaled. 2013. Hamas. In The Routledge Handbook on the Israeli-Palestine Conflict. Edited by Joel Peters and David Newman. New York: Routledge Publication
  • Kjorlien, Michele L. (1993). “Hamas: In Theory and Practice”. The Arab Studies Journal, 1 (2): 4-7
  • Milton-Edwards, Beverley. 2008. The Ascendance of Political Islam: Hamas and consolidation in the Gaza Strip. Third World Quarterly, 29:8. 1585-1599
  • Nasrallah, Rami. 2013. The First and Second Palestinian Intifadas, in Joel Peters and David Newman (eds.) “The Routledge Handbook on The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict”, London: Routledge.
  • Speri, Alice (2023). “Before They Vowed to annihilate Hamas, Israeli Officials Considered It Asset”. The Intercept. 14 October. Available at: (Accessed on 2 December 2023).
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